Photo by Apartheid in South Africa in Flickr

The story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, could be described as the story of God’s triumph over evil by means of the suffering of His Son.

As we have already seen (Barnabas Aid, Nov-Dec 2021, pp. 13-14), this triumph is first foretold in Genesis 3;15 where the Lord tells the serpent that a descendant of Eve “will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. Satan will be utterly defeated and destroyed (in this imagery, the crushing of his head) by our Lord Jesus who will Himself suffer (the striking of his heel) in the encounter.

In Revelation we see the Lamb, who is King of kings and Lord of lords, with his armies triumphing in battle over the beast, the kings who followed the beast and their armies, and the false prophet (Revelation 17:12-14; 19:11-21).

Between the first prophecy and the last battle lies the Cross.

Triumphing by the Cross

It is on the Cross that the Son of God both suffered and triumphed. The Apostle Paul tells us that “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2;15). In the first century Roman Empire to “triumph” not only meant being victorious but also could refer to having a long and spectacular procession through the streets of Rome in honour of a victorious general. 

During this “triumph” the general, crowned with laurel, travelled in a chariot, preceded by civil dignitaries, musicians, prisoners-of-war and other spoils of war he had captured from the defeated enemy of Rome. Behind him came his troops. A triumph was the highest accolade that could be given to a military leader, and was granted by the Senate only after a decisive victory and subjugation of territory. This is the image that Paul and his first readers would have had in mind, when he wrote of first disarming and then making a public spectacle of the “powers and authorities”.

But what were the powers and authorities? Meyer calls them “the devilish powers”.1 Barnes describes them as

the formidable enemies that held man in
subjection, and prevented his serving God…the
ranks of fallen, evil spirits which had usurped a
dominion over the world … The Saviour, by his
death, wrested dominion from them, and seized
upon what they had captured as a conqueror
seizes upon his prey. Satan and his legions had
invaded the earth and drawn its inhabitants into
captivity, and subjected them to their evil reign.
Christ, by his death, subdues the invaders and
recaptures those whom they had subdued.2

We read of them elsewhere in the New Testament (see John 12:31; Ephesians 2:2; 6:12).

The concept of the Roman triumph appears also in 2 Corinthians 2:14.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us
as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and
uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of
him everywhere.

                                             (2 Corinthians 2:14)

It is clear that, in this use of the triumph imagery, we Christian believers are the trophies of war in a triumphal procession that celebrates Christ’s victory. But we are not sullen and resentful captives, dragged against our will from our homeland to His city. Rather, we have submitted joyfully to His rule and lordship. As we have seen, Barnes explains that Christ has recaptured us from the powers and authorities who had had control over us.

Charles Wesley must have had this verse in mind when he wrote his great hymn about the Second Coming of Christ:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favoured sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears, on earth to reign.3

Reigning from the Cross

The Cross, which seemed a place of defeat for Jesus, was in fact a place of triumph for Him and defeat for His enemies. From the Cross He reigned.

The glorious Psalm 96, in which we sing of the LORD’s greatness, splendour and majesty, has a much debated wording in its tenth verse, which begins, “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns.’” According to some sources, the verse should run: “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns from the tree.’”

While scholars argue over this particular text, we can embrace the truth of the thoroughly Biblical idea that the disputed words express, for Christ did reign even as His dead body hung in ignominy on the Cross.

Hymn writers have celebrated this wonderful theme. An ancient hymn, first sung in France on 19 November 569, affirms “how of the Cross He made a throne, on which He reign, a glorious king”.

Nearly thirteen centuries later, Henry Milman wrote:

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, thy power and reign.4

The message of the Cross

The Cross and all that it means were very precious to the first Christian believers. The sign of the Cross was not considered a glorification of suffering in the early Church but “a sign of victory”, a tropaion. This was the term used by the Greek-speaking ancient world for a triumphal sign set up to mark the spot where the turning point in a battle had occurred. It was usually a vertical tree trunk or post, sometimes with a pair of outstretched branches, like arms, on which armour of the defeated foe was hung. For Christians, the Cross is a tropaion, marking the place where victory over death was won.

After Christ’s “death, even death on a cross”,

God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ
is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

                                 (Philippians 2:9-11)

What nonsense this seems to unbelievers. It is only through humble faith that the eternal truth can be understood.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to
those who are perishing, but to us who are
being saved it is the power of God.

                                 (1 Corinthians 1:18)

In Isaiah’s prophecy about the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), the onlookers were astonished at the exaltation of the Servant who had been so appallingly disfigured and marred (52:14). The nations were startled (a better translation than “sprinkled”) and even kings were speechless with amazement (52:15). This is the same leap from utter abasement and degradation to highest exaltation described in the early Christian hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2.

In the culture of the first century Graeco-Roman world, achieving “wisdom” was the highest goal. But this was not wisdom in the sense we understand it today; still less was it the Biblical wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). The wisdom that society at large sought was an arrogant mixture of scholarly learning, aloofness, self-confidence and nobility of bearing, which sought fame and recognition from other great people but despised the ordinary masses. Judged by these criteria, Jesus “failed” badly and therefore “Christ crucified seem foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).The same verse tells us that, for the Jews, His death on the cross was a “stumbling block” (skandalon in Greek), which can also be translated as an offence, snare or scandal. In many ways he did not match up to what they expected of the Messiah foretold by the prophets. The most serious “mismatch” was His suffering and death. In Jewish belief a conquered Messiah or a crucified Messiah would be literally unthinkable. Prophecies such as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 were interpreted as the suffering of the people of Israel, or in other ways – never as the suffering of Messiah Himself.

This is part 1 of the 2 part series titled “The Triumph of Suffering. Click here to read Part 2 >>

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.